The two-week strike by hundreds of thousands of state employees marks the lowest point in relations between the ANC and its alliance partner Cosatu since President Jacob Zuma took leadership of the ruling party, with Cosatu making the unprecedented threat that it will refuse to support some ANC candidates in next year’s municipal elections.
“The alliance is again dysfunctional. The centre cannot hold,” Zwelinzima Vavi, the Cosatu general secretary, said on Thursday. “It is unable to convene a summit for fear of an implosion as a result of fundamental differences on the question of where power lies.”
He said that for the first time Cosatu would be selective about the candidates it would campaign for in next year’s local elections.
“We will refuse to campaign or support candidates known to be thieves or lazy just because they succeed in manipulating the ANC internal processes,” he said.
And in a clear threat to repeat the “Polokwane revolution”, the president of Cosatu’s education union, Sadtu, Thobile Ntola, hinted that if tensions in the alliance were not resolved, it could lead to another leadership change.
“Growing tensions within the alliance are prompted by the continuing contradictions by alliance leaders on policy issues,” said Ntola. “The key differences centre on issues of policy. When we changed the leadership in Polokwane, we expected it to change policy. If they are not going to change policy, they must also be changed.”
Some politicians believe that certain Cosatu leaders are wanting to land ANC leadership positions and believe the strike will boost their support among ordinary ANC members.
As thousands of striking workers took to the streets in countrywide marches on Thursday, the strike looked set to escalate. Vavi has warned that the government’s continued failure to meet public servants’ pay demands will spark secondary strikes next week that will bring the economy to a standstill.
Cosatu’s municipal union intends staging a sympathy strike on Friday, and other Cosatu unions are understood to have approached their employers over plans for similar action on Thursday.
On Thursday the Labour Court dismissed an interim interdict stopping prison warders and police officers from striking, opening the way for industrial action in the security sector.
This week hurried meetings were convened between ANC and Cosatu leaders aimed at ending the strike, but without success. At least two meetings took place on Monday and Tuesday this week, without any progress being made.
Cosatu admitted it had met ANC leaders but refused to divulge details of the meetings. Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, a former mine unionist, is said to have met Cosatu leaders earlier this month in a bid to head off the strike.
At a press conference in Johannesburg on Thursday, Vavi said behind-the-scenes talks with ANC leaders had pushed the government to raise its offer from 5.2% to 7%. “We told them: ‘Let’s not have a strike this year,” he said.
Some of Cosatu’s deployees to the government, including MPs and other government leaders, are being roped in to help mediate between the government and labour.
Former Sadtu leader Thulas Nxesi, now an ANC MP, called on Thursday for the government’s budget process to be aligned with pay negotiations to make the annual state wage round easier.
“But all we can do is advise the two parties,” he said.
ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, a former unionist and a key representative of the alliance left, strenuously denied that the ANC had intervened in the strike, which was a matter between the government and the unions.
Damaging alliance relations
To break the deadlock, he called on both sides to place a final settlement offer on the table, which they could accept or reject and revert to their previous positions. He warned that strikes should not be “managed with anger”. But he made it clear that the ANC was not impressed by striking teachers and nurses. “It is incorrect to disrupt processes of learning,” Mantashe said, adding that if union leaders continued making inflammatory statements, it would seriously damage alliance relations.
He warned that an indefinite strike could hurt Cosatu. “The British National Union of Mineworkers had a year-long strike in 1984. That was the start of the end of that union,” he said.
Jeremy Cronin, the deputy transport minister and South African Communist Party deputy general secretary, said that, although the strike was motivated by legitimate demands, there were signs that the ANC’s elective conference, due in 2012, was also having an influence.
He also expressed concern about the effect the strike was having on alliance relations.
“No doubt the strike is having a strain on the alliance,” he said. “The private sector is now sitting back looking at Cosatu hitting at government. The whole thing makes government appear bad.”
One provincial union leader said that a driving force for workers in continuing with the strike had been the “easily reached” settlements of 8% in parastatals.
“It’s not such a big deal because they service the business sector, while here the public is the main client. So the government doesn’t care that much,” the unionist said.
Despite his threats to bring the economy to a standstill, Vavi said the unions had given “the people we are talking to some space to talk to their colleagues in government”. He was hopeful that a settlement could be reached. He said that the leadership of Cosatu was willing to settle but that its members were “so angry” that they had told the leadership to reject the offer.
“We cannot say we are good leaders and therefore side with government. We must do what our members say.”
The power of labour
One senior union leader said the strike had starkly highlighted the power of labour. Essential service workers felt secure in ignoring court orders to return to work and Cosatu was planning a wave of sympathy stoppages that would paralyse the economy. “We are meeting with the ANC but things are not moving. They can see our power and that is why they are not closing the door,” the union leader said.
Cosatu and the ANC have long differed over the centre of power in the alliance, with the union federation arguing that it is the alliance itself, not the ruling party. The implication is that all important strategic decisions, particularly those on economic policy, must be made jointly by the allies.
Vavi said that since the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane conference progress on the economic front had been disappointing. “There was a honeymoon period post-Polokwane, particularly in the alliance, but a range of problematic agendas, particularly on economic policy, has countered the gains.”